24 October 2011 Post By: VV

Moving Between Fanfiction and Original Fiction

For my first post on my new author blog, I'd like to repost something I wrote on an older shared blog a few months ago. Welcome!

I wrote fanfiction before original fiction. My co-writer Heidi, on the other hand, started off with original fiction.

Fanfiction in some circles is regarded as a mark of shame, but it's gained cultural acceptance to the point that a major venue like Time recently published a sympathetic piece called The Boy Who Lived Forever. If you're not familiar with fanfiction, I can't think of a single better introduction.

If you are familiar, however, you might be interested in the difference between fanfiction and original fiction and how writers move between the two. It's more than a little pretentious for me to give advice on this topic, considering we don't even have a book deal yet, but I'm going to go ahead and stick my neck out.

Fanfiction is a market just like publishing. It runs less on money and more on attention, that's all. It's an attention-based economy -- not that money isn't a part of the market too, because the more resources you have, the more time and education and practice you can afford to invest in your craft or hobby.

Just like publishing, the most popular fanfics are not always the best. But popularity and quality are still correlated; they're just not correlated exactly. The key thing to remember is that high quality, successful fanfics do not have the same qualities as high quality, successful original fiction (I define success simply as getting the kind of attention the writer is satisfied to receive, whether that’s two comments from two people they respect, or thousands).

Let's look at some of the big differences and see what fanfic does best. By the way, these are generalizations based on Anglophone media fandoms, which are the ones I’m most familiar with.
  • Fanfic encourages a laser focus on relationships: all kinds of relationships, romantic and otherwise.
  • Fanfic allows for vignettes that don't need definitive introduction or closure. These vignettes are free to be filled with rich sensuous detail and inner life.
  • Fanfic allows for exploring violent impulses without consequences. Characters are often tortured, for example, even the characters that writers and readers love.
  • Fanfic allows for exploring sexual impulses without consequences.
  • Fanfic allows for exploring childlike impulses without consequences.
  • I could go on in this vein for a while! But to sum it up, fanfic can be used to explore ANY extreme -- positive or negative or boring or weird -- anything at all. And people will still read it, because they already care about the characters. Whether they like it is a different story, but they’ll at least give it a try.
  • Fanfic allows for radical stylistic experimentation.
  • Fanfic allows for instant positive feedback and building strong relationships of support and collaboration with other writers.
  • Fanfiction encourages writers to hone their skills at dialogue in order to duplicate canon voices.
  • Fanfiction encourages writers to tailor their output to the desires of their audience and gauge those desires well, all in a fairly risk-free manner.

Here are some things that fanfic does NOT tend to encourage.
  • Setting detail. Most settings are already given to us by canon. They're taken for granted. Describing setting takes time away from the stuff everyone wants to read: the characters interacting and having a rich inner life.
  • Character description. We know how the characters look already in canon. There's no need to describe them all over again.
  • Original characters. There's a frequent prejudice against original characters, especially female ones.
  • Plot. The major plot points are already given to us in canon.
  • Conflict and suspense. It's very hard to introduce this in fanfic, because conflict and suspense rely on CHANGE, and fanfic writers 1) often don't want to truly change the characters they love 2) even if they do, their audience may not accept the change.

I've found that fanfic excels in psychological detail. Porn and erotic scenes are also incredible. I’ve read almost no famous original writers who can write this stuff as well as the best fanfic writers of any gender or sexuality. Of course, there's plenty of bad porn in fanfic as well, but since the supply and demand are so strong, and the sheer volume is so high, the best of it is amazingly good.

There are certain common pitfalls for moving to original fiction after honing your skills through fanfiction.
  • Your ability to write setting may be rusty. You get frustrated at being forced to describe furniture and trees, even for half a sentence. Your scenes end up taking place against blank canvases, and consequently they fail to come alive.
  • Your ability to write good secondary characters is rusty. You concentrate on a few major characters and everyone else seems like a puppet: poorly physically described and expendable.
  • Your plots lack true conflict and suspense and are slow-moving. Characters talk too much and think too much. Eventually, your brilliant dialogue and interior monologue won’t disguise the fact that your characters are trudging through their story as if through knee-high peanut butter.
  • You get easily discouraged at the lack of positive feedback and long wait times to publication.

None of these problems have to afflict writers. You can work around them or through them. Personally, when writing fanfic I try hard not to let my setting, OC or plot muscles get flabby. Plot-heavy fanfics are not the most popular type of fics, but there's still a niche for them in the attention-based economy.

I don’t believe fanfic is inherently less worthy than original fiction. I’ve read too many brilliant unique fanfics and too many dull, derivative original stories. They’re just different, that’s all, and they live in totally different economies. I wouldn’t expect to be paid money for my fanfic (that would be, um, illegal) and I wouldn’t expect to publish my original fiction and have it find a market of readers with a single mouse-click.

That being said, fanfic skills can help original fiction, and vice versa. I wish major published writers would write sex better; I’ve been thrown out of many tight-paced, exciting books by groan-worthy sex scenes with pretentious, boner-killing similes. Conversely, I love seeing fanfic published by people who bring unusual original fiction skills to the table. And many skills overlap beautifully: dialogue is a perfect example. I always lacked confidence about my ability to write in the voice of a character very different from myself... until I started writing fanfic and challenged myself to match the voice of canon characters. I started getting compliments on my dialogue, and I realized, hey, I can do this! And I’m getting damn good at it!

For The Druid Stone, we brought the best of our fanfiction skills to the table. As for sex? We didn’t get too many line edits back on those scenes because our betas were too busy fanning themselves to prevent spontaneous combustion. The relationship is psychologically complicated and full of twists and bends, but also pure and powerful at its core, and we show that (instead of telling it) through their inner lives and body language. But we also kept in mind the other writing skills that fanfic doesn’t tend to encourage. We made sure there’s real suspense, tight plotting, rich setting and interesting secondary characters that add depth to the lives of the main characters and their struggle.

If you’re a writer, have you made the jump from fanfiction to original fiction? Or did you write original fiction first, then take up fanfiction as a hobby? As a reader, what do you look for in fanfic versus original fanfiction?

  1. This is a really good post, thank you :)

    As a writer, I have jumped from fanfic (sorta) to original. It is sort of hard to explain what I jumped from because I wasn't necessarily writing true fanfic, but I was writing with the use of pictures. Therefore, I didn't need to describe settings much, or emotions because I had the pictures to go by.

    I've hit every one of those pitfalls :/ but am learning

    "I’ve been thrown out of many tight-paced, exciting books by groan-worthy sex scenes with pretentious, boner-killing similes"

    Haha! This is so true, and it took awhile to figure out that the prose I was using wasn't going to hold up in the publishing world.

  1. I'm glad you found it accurate! And you're also the very first commenter on my blog, so thanks for commenting!

  1. I read and review a lot of m/m romance, but don't write it. Someone has to clap and cheer. I did come out of fandom and saw every variety of writer and story, whether it was well thought out with good voice or something that was pretty much there because the author thought it was fapworthy. It honed my discernment.

    Now, if I find a published story that has poor/nonexistent characterization and eyerolly plot points, I can be pretty sure it's converted fan fiction. I should already know that dull/hard stuff, right? and it's cute to have them do something silly and not plotty, right? Not.

    There's been some wonderful conversions that I would never has suspected of being anything other than what they are because of the depth. But I still think that fanfiction or no fanfiction, those are the authors who already wrote their million words of crap and didn't ask anyone to pay for it.

  1. Thanks for commenting Cryselle!

    I definitely remember reading one novel-length conversion with characterizations that seemed off somehow, as if there was something I wasn't quite getting about why the characters acted certain ways or spoke certain ways. Then I learned it was a conversion after the fact.

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